How Russian exile Leonid Nevzlin is taking on the Kremlin

Leonid Nevzlin, co-founder of Yukos, is waging a high-profile court battle to win back the oil company's assets seized by the Kremlin.


Kremlin critic Leonid Nevzlin

In 2003, Leonid Nevzlin left Russia shortly before his former partner at Yukos Oil, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was jailed for fraud. "He was the one who got away," says Forbes. Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, spent ten years in a Siberian prison camp before being "pardoned" in 2013. Nevzlin headed to Israel, and in 2008 was sentenced in his absence to life imprisonment by a Russian court, charged with "organising" five contract murders.

Like Khodorkovsky, Nevzlin has always maintained that his "crimes" were trumped-up charges instigated by the duo's "nemesis", the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, says The Daily Telegraph. Certainly, Putin lost no time in confiscating Yukos assets, handing the best to state-owned energy company Rosneft.

Nevzlin became a vocal critic of the Kremlin offering to bankroll dissident chess champion Garry Kasparov's presidential campaign in 2007. He also began a legal battle to reclaim Yukos' assets for Group Menatep Ltd (GML), the oil giant's former holding company, and its shareholders.

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In 2014, GML struck gold when an arbitration panel in The Hague awarded it $50bn in damages a sum "20 times bigger" than any previous award, and equivalent to 20% of Russia's annual budget, says the FT. Nevzlin, to whom Khodorkovsky transferred his own stake in 2005, was "the single biggest beneficiary". The celebrations didn't last long.

In April this year, another Dutch court overturned the ruling, saying the panel had no jurisdiction in the case, as it was brought under the Energy Charter Treaty, an international agreement Russia signed but never ratified.

"The latest defeat hasn't shaken Yukos' shareholders in their belief that the company was stolen from them," says The Daily Telegraph. The Kremlin, meanwhile, "is keen to paint Yukos as a theft and a fraud from the start", depicting Khodorkovsky and Nevzlin as robber barons who cleaned up during former president Boris Yeltsin's fire sale of state assets in the early 1990s something that the shareholders dispute.

Nevzlin was born into a Jewish family in Moscow in 1959: his father was an engineer, his mother a teacher. Unusually for the time, says The Jewish Chronicle, the family was "firmly and proudly Jewish". Nevzlin worked at the Soviet Ministry of Geology, before teaming with Khodorkovsky in 1990 to establish Menatep Bank, which became the holding company for acquisitions including Yukos. Before fleeing Russia, he became known as a generous philanthropist.

For now, "Russia is on the front foot", says The Daily Telegraph. But from their offices in London's St James's, GML's lawyers are plotting a fight back. The Russians are in no doubt that they face a dogged and wily opponent. Everyone associates Yukos with Khodorkovsky, says Andrei Kondakov, head of Russia's International Centre for Legal Protection. "People tell me Nevzlin was the really smart guy."